Issue 54 (2016)

Maksim Fadeev: Savva, Heart of a Warrior (Savva, Serdtse voina, 2015)

reviewed by Laura Pontieri© 2016

Released in 2015, the feature-length animated film Savva, Heart of a Warrior brings us into the world of a child named Savva, who is trying to release his village from the yoke of hyenas. The story in itself is not exceptionally original: a child wants to defend his mother and community from the enemies; he sets out to find a magician who could help him but finally discovers that the warrior he is seeking is no one but himself.

savvaA journey of self-discovery is common in animated films for children, yet here it is not thoroughly developed. Savva faces various challenges, but these trials neither change nor mature him. Every time the hero encounters an obstacle, the problem swiftly resolves itself—the story does not seem to offer trials from which the child can learn.

A positive and strong message is reiterated in the film: “You can achieve everything when you wish it with all of your heart.” The message is not new but surely worth repeating. By investing all his will and love in saving his village, Savva will obtain the courage to fight the hyenas. However, the practical means necessary for the fight—physical strength and martial art fighting techniques—are neither expected nor justified.

savvaThe shortcomings in the script are not overcome by the animation. The 3D computer animation of most of the characters is quite unsophisticated. If the animation of the hero Savva is perhaps slightly more detailed and thorough, the depiction of the white wolf Anga is particularly unsuccessful. The white wolf’s movements are neither detailed nor smooth. His superimposed human facial expressions clash with his wolf features, which are devoid of anthropomorphized characteristics. Only later in the story, when we discover that Anga can transform into a human being, we wonder whether these contrasting human/animal traits are meant to convey the wolf’s dual nature.

This film is recommended for children older than six years of age, but some images and situations are too frightening for such a young audience. The film starts with scary portraits of the menacing hyenas and continues with fast-paced chase sequences that create an excessive build-up of tension for young children. However, the same pace might captivate older youngsters accustomed to adventurous films. Teens would also probably appreciate the monkeys-with-an-attitude and the Rikies, wolves turned into quasi-humans wearing head-to-toe armor in the guise of Star Wars’ Darth Vader. Younger audiences, instead, would probably find the silly and lonely pink creature Pusik and the cute little magician entertaining.

savvaOther characters might please a variety of audiences: the three-headed Monkey Queen and the Half-Baron with a mosquito as companion add a humorous tone, and the shaman’s daughter Nanti vaguely hints at a potential romance. The character of Nanti, though, is not very effective; her animation is not thoroughly developed and her function is not clear. The intentions and motivations that bring Nanti to leave the Shaman and follow Savva are vague and the potential romance is left intentionally unresolved since the focus turns mainly to the bond of friendship, especially between Savva and the wolf.

The film, as typical of adventures, has a tight pace and rhythm and is built around numerous chases. Features from martial arts movies with slow motion action sequences or postmodernist hyper-fast sequences are also part of the film style. The cartoon borrows very few elements from traditional fairy tales, namely, the theme of the journey, and the depiction of the hut (izba) with chicken legs, here originally inhabited by a charming little girl—an original twist from the ugly traditional Baba Yaga.

savvaA couple of lyrical instances interrupt the flow of events. In the first one, both mother and son are depicted while looking at the same moon from different places. Another poetic moment occurs when Savva and Anga have a conversation on eternity. Here, our hero and the white wolf philosophize about how nothing is eternal in this world but God and God’s heart. The philosophical exchange is accompanied by a fast-speed shot moving upward from the characters on Earth to the infinite Cosmos. This pensive bout, although loosely related to the heart theme in the story, seems out of place in the overall film style. Still, according to the director (official website), this very conversation, which in reality occurred with his son, sparked the idea of the film. It then took seven years to have the film completed. Incidentally, the name of the director’s son is none other than Savva.

The director, Maks Fadeev, is more famous for his music than for his directorial roles, but already in 2007 he—together with singer Gluk’oZa (Natalia Ionova) and Aleksandr Chistiakov (producer of Savva)—founded an animation studio in order to provide musical videos to the artists for whom he composed music. Savva is his first full-length animated film.

savvaThe studio Glukoza collaborated with Fedor Bondarchuk’s Art Pictures Studio (Fedor Bondarchuk is the executive producer of Savva and the voice of the leading hyena) and also with studios in South Korea, China, Germany, Hong Kong and Singapore. Moreover, several artists were also brought in from Europe and Latin America, turning the film into a truly international project.

The English release enjoys the collaboration of Greg Poirier, a renowned American screenwriter, and Samuel Aroutiounian, an American producer. The English version boasts the voices of famous actors such as Sharon Stone for the pink creature Puffy, Joe Pesci for the King of Mosquitos, Whoopi Goldberg for the three-headed evil Monkey Queen Mom JoZee, Milla Jovovich for Savva, Will Chase for the white wolf Anga, and Jim Cummings, a well-known actor in animation, for the Shaman.

Overall the film does not always flow smoothly, presenting a mix of styles and ideas that at times clash. The 3-D animation is not consistently or thoroughly developed, and characters evolve only superficially. On the one hand, the pace is captivating and suits an older audience. On the other, certain ideas comply more with the tastes of younger children. While trying to address all kinds of spectatorship, the director fails to present a coherent movie. Despite all its shortcomings, the film is still entertaining but not a masterpiece.

Laura Pontieri
University of Toronto

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Savva, Heart of a Warrior, Russia, 2015
Color, animation, 85 minutes
English release title: Hero Quest
Director: Maksim Fadeev
Script: Maksim Fadeev, Aleksandr Chistiakov, Gregory Poirier
Art Directors: Anton Grechko, Leonid Bliummer
Producer: Aleksandr Chistiakov
Executive producers: Fedor Bondarchuk, Samuel Aroutiounian
Composer: Maksim Fadeev
Editing: Iuliia Pisarenko
Voices: Maksim Chukhariov (Savva), Konstantin Khabenskii (Anga), Fedor Bondarchuk (Elza), Mikhail Galustian (Polubaron Fafl), Lolita Milyavskaya (Mama ZhoZi), Natal’ia Ionova (Pusik), Armen Dzhigarkhanian (Shaman Shi-Sha), Grigorii Leps (Komar)
Voices in English release: Milla Jovovich (Savva), Will Chase (Anga), Patrick Page (Elza), Geoffrey Cantor (Semi-Baron Fafl), Whoopi Goldberg (Mama Zho Zi), Sharon Stone (Pusik), Jim Cummings (Shaman Shi-Sha), Joe Pesci (Komar)

Website

Maksim Fadeev: Savva, Heart of a Warrior (Savva, Serdtse voina, 2015)

reviewed by Laura Pontieri© 2016

Updated: 09 Oct 16